I’m not generally a parade person. In America, they are usually filled with marching bands and clowns (neither of which are my favorite) and end with guys on horses and the poor smucks relegated to cleaning up their messes.
At the Gion Matsuri this Japanese-style parade is not only none of those things, it is an amazing slice of history.
"The Gion Matsuri [is] the festival of Yasaka Shrine, [and] is the most famous festival in Japan. It takes place over the entire month of July. There are many different events, but the grand procession of floats (Yamaboko Junko) on July 17 is particularly spectacular… From 2014, a second procession of floats was reintroduced on July 24 after a hiatus of 48 years. The second procession features fewer and smaller floats than the one on July 17…the word Yamaboko refers to the two types of floats used in the procession: the 23 yama and 10 hoko. One of the main reasons the Gion Matsuri is so impressive is the enormity of the hoko, which are up to 25 meters tall, weigh up to 12 tons, and are pulled on wheels as big as people. Both yama and hoko are elaborately decorated and represent unique themes. The procession on July 17 features 23 yama and hoko, including most of the particularly impressive hoko, while the procession on July 24 features the remaining ten yama and hoko.
"Another reason for the festival's impressiveness is its long and almost uninterrupted history. It dates back to 869 as a religious ceremony to appease the gods during the outbreak of an epidemic…”
That’s a whole lot of history.
I can’t speak for what the July 17th version was like, but the one on the 24th was awesome enough for me.
We arrived about an hour before the first float was scheduled to appear at the corner of Shijo and Kawaramachi streets, and stood in the shade of the overhang across from the Takashimaya Department store. It turned out to be the best location and by bringing a selfie stick, The Professor was able to get amazing shots of the parade.
First, there were smaller shrines carried down the street, followed by women in kimonos, people dressed as white peacocks, small groups of musicians playing traditional music (of drums, flutes, and bells or gongs), kids on horses dressed in historic garb, samurai, and geishas. This portion is simple and amazing.
Then about an hour into the parade the first of the big wooden floats arrives from the side. There are two types of floats—those that are pushed on wheels but at the corners are picked up by a large group of men and turned by brute force to go in the new direction required of the corner, and the really large floats that weigh up to 12 tons that must be moved by a very complicated process that requires whole teams of men to lay down reeds, others to pour water on them, a huge gaggle to pull the carts, and a select few who hang from the front of the floats gracefully directing the men to pull and in which direction, using a series of hand movements and their fans. It is so beautiful to watch and the process must be repeated for each float no less than three times before the float has managed to be redirected in the new direction of the corner, before it can continue down the street.
And some of the groups who lift the smaller floats to turn them, do not want to be outdone by the larger floats, so they will turn their float two, sometimes more times around in circles before setting it down again on the wheels. The more they do it, the bigger the cheers from the audience. These floats may be smaller, but one can tell they are definitely not lightweight, and the multiple turnings are for true showmanship.
After the final float passed, the original groups of hand-carried smaller shrines, women in kimonos, people dressed as white peacocks, kids on horses dressed in historic garb, samurai, and geishas walked back past us. It was so pretty.
When the parade finally ended, we went and got some lunch, then took the bus back to the stop for the Kiyomizu-dera temple.
By then It was really hot again and we were full from lunch, so what do we end up doing? We trudge up the hill, through the crowds, past all the stores selling stuff to see the temple we had seen in 2010. Ugh. Frankly, we had forgotten how much walking uphill was involved.
I’m glad we saw the shrine before, because we found at reaching the top that much of it is under construction—so we didn’t bother to pay the admission price to go out onto the terrace that overlooks Kyoto. It’s pretty, but we were hot, tired, and through with spending money for shrine admissions. We had reached the saturation point of ‘Oh-no. Not another shrine!’
After checking out the crowds of people for a while, we headed back down the hill through the meandering streets and past the cute little shops to our hotel.
After relaxing for a couple of hours we walked down Shijo to recreate the Tofu dinner experience that we had in 2010 and has been one of The Professor’s favorites ever since. They changed the menu up a bit since last time, but it’s basically 9 courses of (mostly) tofu or yuba at Ume no Hana. One of the courses alone makes it worth the trek—tofu, this time matcha-flavored, cooked right at the table. It is oh, so good.
Ume no Hana is a definite yes in our book and was a perfect end to a perfect stay in perfect Kyoto.